Andrea della Robbia,
Tempietto of the Relic of the Holy Milk

The “Chapel of Saint Mary of the Milk”, more commonly known as the Tempietto of the Relic of the Holy Milk was commissioned to Andrea della Robbia by the Brotherhood of the Holy Milk, founded at the end of the 15th century with the purpose of taking care of the Relic of the Holy Milk. The precious relic (according to tradition, it is a drop of crystalized milk that fell from the Child’s lips during the flight to Egypt) first belonged to the Eastern emperor, later to the king of France, Louis IX and then given to his brother Charles D’Anjou. It was then presented to Guido Guerra of the Guidi counts in 1266, who then entrusted it to the Church of San Lorenzo in Montevarchi that, thanks to the prestige conferred on it by the custody of the very precious holy object, was appointed collegiate church in 1561 at the will of Pope Pius IV.

The Tempietto, as we see it today, is the result of a careful and scrupulous reconstruction carried out in the 1990s, based on a description contained in a manuscript by Giovan Jacopo Dendi. At the beginning of the 18th century, in fact, during the renovation of the Collegiate Church, the Tempietto was taken down and, even if the Della Robbian reliefs were miraculously saved to be enwalled inside the sacristy, the original architectonic structure was completely lost. The dating goes back to the five-year period, 1495-1500, and is clearly inspired by the two aedicules designed by Michelozzo in the shrine of Santa Maria in Impruneta and dated 1468.

They are the years in which Florence was undergoing a profound change in thought. Lorenzo the Magnificent had recently died; in his place the repressive and authoritarian sermons of Girolamo Savonarola, who inveighed bitterly against the liberal and joyous mentality of the Laurentian era, were becoming influential. There were many artists from this period who radically changed their expressive ways. Andrea Della Robbia was one of these. His ornate and dynamic style, more evident in his early work, changes here in a simplification of the forms and an abandonment of narration. This is seen in particular in the renunciation of the bright colors, characteristic of his previous works, in favor of white, a symbol of extreme simplicity and, at the same time, purity. The figures depicted are austere, forgetting the grace and joyful appearance of the past, becoming icons of a dark and rigid religiosity of a northern European style.

Andrea della Robbia, Tempietto of the Relic of the Holy Milk, 1495-1500; glazed terracotta, from the right aisle of the Collegiate Church of San Lorenzo